Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949) returned to his native Uruguay after a journey that lasted 43 years, during which he frequented the modernist vanguards in Spain, Italy, New York and Paris, and acquired a vast artistic and philosophical culture. After the age of 60 he was able to create his own aesthetic-philosophical current: Constructive Universalism.
When I returned to Uruguay after an absence of twenty years, I noticed —in museums, exhibits and art galleries— the number of Uruguayan artists who ordered the elements of their works within a structure of squares or rectangles, either clearly drawn or barely perceptible. Many of them used an orthogonal structure when they started, and are still using it. I got my explanation when I found out that structure was one of the principles of art for Joaquín Torres García, who left an indelible mark with his painting workshop and the School of the South, not only on artists from the River Plate area but also on Latin American art in general.
Torres García was born in Montevideo in 1874, in the bosom of a family of Catalan immigrants and lived outside Uruguay from the age of 17 until almost to the age of 60. Throughout his intense life, in Spain, Italy, New York and Paris, he was a frequent witness of modernist vanguards, acquiring an extremely vast artistic and philosophical culture, and making his name a respected one in the art world; he produced an enormous amount of paintings and murals, created wooden objects and toys, wrote books, gave conferences and taught. He was influenced by pictorial currents then in vogue among the main cultural circles but he did not give up on his search until he was able to formulate his own theory and to create his own aesthetic-philosophical current: Constructive Universalism
Torres thought that art should not imitate nature. Structure, unit and proportion were the guiding ideas. He saved the contradiction between abstraction and representation of reality using semiotics: he created a symbolic alphabet to represent nature. With Torres García, I discovered the golden ratio, already being used by artists back in classical antiquity, which consists of the fact that the lesser part of something is the biggest part, much as the biggest part is the totality of the matter in question. This ratio, found in nature, is translated into the number 1.61803, considered a mystical number. I did not find the best explanation of the golden ratio through Torres García but in YouTube, through a didactic video titled “Donald Duck and the Golden Ratio.”
Then, for the teacher, the ratio does not refer to the ratio between things, but to the rigorous application of the golden ratio, both on figures as well as on structure. At the Torres García Museum in Montevideo, visitors are provided with a golden compass, a type of scissors whose ends keep that ratio between them. One can measure the components of the paintings, the pieces of the wooden toys and even corroborate on oneself the presence of the golden ratio.
Torres García married Manolita Piña in Barcelona; she stayed by his side until her death and gave him four children. Notwithstanding the fact that the artist was a regular attendant at the literary circles that met in coffee houses (he started by going to the famous Els Quatre Gats, in Barcelona), he was far from participating in Bohemian life. Michel Seuphor, the French painter and critic, tells us that when he would arrive to Torres’s studio in Paris, the bows and arrows of his children, dressed as Indians, would lie in ambush, ready to pounce on visitors as soon as they came in. The children played and ran through the studio, among still fresh canvases. They did not bother him; on the contrary, Torres loved them and learned from them, considering them his teachers, as much as his disciples. In fact, long after, Augusto and Horacio became part of the Torres García Workshop and were renowned artists on their own merit.
Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti illustrates with humor the austere everyday life of the Torres family, stating that “…in their home, food was considered of little importance. They were happy with a bit of lettuce, carrots and tomatoes.” Onetti says that during one of his visits to the painter, when he was just a young writer, he stayed too late and they decided to invite him to have dinner. As the guest “had the right to eat more or less a real meal” the children made it a game trying to decide who would have to go out and buy a bit of ham. As another anecdote, he tells us that at the time when Torres García was courting Manolita in Barcelona, she would delay giving him an answer and overlooked “his language of love by fussing over a filthy lap dog”; the suitor had had enough and threw the dog out the window, before asking for the last time. “As in fairytales, both Manolita and art answered yes.”
It should not be surprising that a character such as Joaquín Torres García would have turbulent relationships with the world of art. Picasso and he respected each other professionally, but they did not like each other as individuals. The lesson about the Spanish painter contained in the monumental thousand-page book “Constructive Universalism”, is very telling; in it, Torres praises him as a great artist who “has contributed enormously to steer painting away from a bad trend and to put it on a good path” and, at the same time, he lashes out at him: “Right now, it is easier to see a king or the Pope, than him. Of course, whenever he meets a friend on the street he pleads for him to go see him, but later on the door never opens.” It would seem that this was a snub personally experienced by Torres García, who never forgave it: Picasso sent word that he was not at home while Torres García was able to see him standing behind the person addressing to him.
In 1928, during the full boom of abstract art and cubism, Torres García experienced a decisive influence. While living in Paris, thanks to his friendship with Dutchman Teo Van Doesburg and Belgian Michel Seuphor, he met Piet Mondrian. Torres-García was not successful. He was not affiliated with any given current, and notwithstanding the fact that he was a respected artist, he was not selling enough. He was 54 years old and continued searching for a pure, absolute and universal art. The following year, he founded, along with Michel Seuphor, Van Doesburg, Mondrian and other artists, the Cercle et Carré (circle and square) movement, in contraposition to impressionism. Nevertheless, the movement did not have positive, clean and unanimous positions. It was a point of confluence for trends such as neo-plasticism, elementarism, constructivism, abstraction and geometry.
In 1934, after spending some time in Madrid, the Torres-García family moved to Montevideo, 43 years after the departure of young Joaquín. One of the reasons given by the artist for returning to Uruguay was the need to get nourishment from Pre-Columbian art: “The whole of America must stand up to create a powerful and virgin art.” Nevertheless, Uruguay is far away from those civilizations where Pre-Columbian art flourished. The European crisis, the lack of understanding experienced by Torres-García, who by then was almost sixty years old, his incredible vitality and an incessant artistic search, all played a role in this return.
In Uruguay, Torres was well received and embarked on a frenetic pace of activity. Without setting painting aside, he founded the Constructive Art Association, edited the magazine Círculo y Cuadrado —continuing the tradition of Cercle et Carré—, gave hundreds of conferences, wrote new books, created the School of the South and later the Torres García Workshop. “The South is our North,” he stated, is an attempt to steer away from the European vanguards and strive for a purely American art. The workshop became the center of Uruguayan painting, recruiting disciples and admirers everywhere, and changed forever the art of painting in the River Plate area. The Madi movement, integrated by more than sixty artists from countries as diverse as Argentina, Belgium, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy and Japan, recognizes him as a fundamental point of reference.
Torres García died in Montevideo in 1949, at the age of seventy-five. In the last few decades, the works of this master have gained in value. Prices for these pieces of art have increased and his work is featured in collections at museums such as the MoMA (New York), the Pompidou (Paris) or the Queen Sofía (Madrid), among others. Nevertheless, the matter of the value placed in different countries for the work and the influence of Torres García has yet to be resolved, both among the experts as well as among curators for museums and exhibits. There are those who say that Torres García, paradoxically, is an artist with more future as times goes on, and others assure us that he always was and will be someone who is misunderstood, because he moved away from the vanguards in his indefatigable search for an art of his own, outside of the realms of any school.
In 1978, a deplorable incident resulted in the loss of seventy-three of his works. They were being returned from a retrospective exhibit held in Paris and were being shown at the Modern Art Museum in Río de Janeiro, when a fire destroyed them. In Uruguay, it is impossible not to see the mark of Torres García. Much as it happened to me after twenty years of absence, when I asked myself why so many Uruguayan painters insisted on putting everything inside squares and rectangles.